NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The tire industry will have to focus on service alongside products to prepare for upcoming industry trends, according to TJ Higgins, president of the integrated consumer tire group, U.S. & Canada, for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations.
The tire industry is at an inflection point as shifts in consumer trends and new technology are "reshaping mobility for the everyday driver," he said in an interview.
Megatrends such as autonomous vehicle technologies, more electric cars and ride-sharing are influencing the way tire makers engineer, manufacture, distribute and sell tires, he said. An increase in online shopping means more customers start with research on tires before in-store purchasing.
"In this environment, tire manufacturers must engineer innovative products that exceed consumers' expectations, both today and in the future, while also ensuring dealers have access to the products they need now to meet the needs of their customer base," he said.
A focus on added service will be a defining factor for the industry in the short term, he said.
"It will no longer be enough to engineer great products," Mr. Higgins said. "Great products must be paired with exceptional service by a best-in-class dealer network in order to win with consumers. Dealers should be thinking about ways they can evolve their business to meet the needs of tomorrow's customers while still servicing the vehicles of today."
As ride-sharing and electric- and/or autonomous-vehicle technology takes off, tire manufacturers will have to make changes to adjust to the new requirements of those vehicles, he said. Shared mobility as a trend will mean fewer vehicle owners, and the industry could see a shift to a fleet-driven environment.
Tires will need to be durable and offer extended mobility, and the industry will see increased demand for run-flat tires, in particular. Over time, there will be an increased need for a commercially viable non-pneumatic tire.
For electric vehicles, lightweighting is key for original equipment manufacturers, and tire makers play an important role in that discussion, he said.
"Tire manufacturers will need to partner with OEMs to design tires that achieve these goals while also still providing high-load-carrying capacity, improved durability and maximum efficiency," Mr. Higgins said.
For autonomous vehicles, tires are an important source of information, a "component of a larger, connected vehicle ecosystem," he said. Contact patch sensors could analyze and share changing road conditions with fleet managers while integrated ride-control systems promote ride comfort.
No matter what types of vehicles are coming for the market, tires will need to provide increased durability, longer wear life and extended mobility as important performance characteristics for passenger and light truck tires, Mr. Higgins said. Tires that address noise, vibration and harshness also will be a focus.
"Manufacturers are working hard to deliver more innovation in these areas, keeping in mind that they are the critical tire performance attributes needed for fleets of autonomous, electric vehicles in the future," he said.
As light vehicle sales are plateauing in North America, customers are managing inventory more tightly than in the past, but there are pockets of strength, Mr. Higgins said. Sales for vehicle types such as crossovers and pickup trucks have remained favorable, as well as demand for value-added tires such as run-flats and larger-rim-diameter tires.
"There will be a continued market-share focus as manufacturers and customers look to win at retail to drive growth," Mr. Higgins said. "Certainly, the industry will remain very competitive."
Additionally, SKU proliferation will continue to drive complexity in the tire industry, he said. Tire manufacturers will have to ensure supply to independent dealers and the consumers they serve.
"This reality is driving many of the changes you are already seeing in distribution," Mr. Higgins said. "Distributors who are not offering broader access to tire manufacturers' complete portfolio will find it harder to compete and win in this environment."